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A New Model for Helping the Homeless: Tent City West

Bruce Emmerling writes about the city of Baltimore and the homeless.

A view of the school housing the community of Tent City West

A view of the school housing the community of Tent City West

Charting a New Course for Homeless Communities

What started out as an encampment on a lawn outside of Baltimore City has morphed into a well-organized community for people that are homeless. Called “Tent City West,” the community is based in an unused school building in western Baltimore. The building, which was provided by the city government, has been used as an overflow community in the past. The residents of the original “Tent City” made a deal with the Mayor of Baltimore to provide housing as well as services in exchange for their leaving the city hall grounds. Buses were provided by the city to move the residents over to the school building. For the past two weeks, beginning in August 2017, the temporary community has managed to become a community for the residents.

While not perfect, the building provides a warm, safe space for the homeless residents. Some residents had been living outside for a number of months or years. Together, the residents have transformed a temporary housing situation into a living community. Not only is the community well organized, it has managed to live without incident for two weeks at its present location.

The mayor of Baltimore, Catherine Pugh, visits Tent City West during a BBQ on Labor Day 2017.

The mayor of Baltimore, Catherine Pugh, visits Tent City West during a BBQ on Labor Day 2017.

How Tent City Is Organized

Perhaps the first thing that stands out when visiting the community is that there isn’t really an agency or organization in charge. Essentially the residents are running the program themselves with a few exceptions like a security team providing security onsite. Volunteers also come in to provide medical care, social outreach, and to help prepare meals. The residents organize and catalog all donations, provide security, keep the premises clean, and work to resolve any issues that might arise. It’s a very tightly run community and visitors will be ask very quickly if they need help. Outsiders are often stopped from venturing into the building without first obtaining permission. The residents also enforce a no drug use policy to help those in recovery.

The School Building

Inside the school building are countless rooms that once fostered classrooms. A front room houses an administration office. This office helps provide a front end buffer for visitors and volunteers. A large gymnasium is also open to residents with basketball hoops and space for beds or cots. Beyond the gymnasium is a room with a large refrigerator and freezer to store food stuffs in. Long halls reveal an almost endless supply of rooms and spaces to expand to. Outside there are large fields and a playground.

The Residents

So far, the residents have done an effective job of dealing with major problems. One issue has been the potential for lead, which has not been officially confirmed. Residents have had to rely on donated water to drink or cook with. Another problem has been the lack of cooking appliances. While several cooking appliances such as a crock pot and a microwave have been donated, preparing large meals is very difficult. The residents have had to procure donated food, sometimes prepared food from outsiders to find nourishment.

The residents and the security team have also effectively worked to deal with any residents that violated rules. In the end, the community has become a safe place with electricity, bathrooms, and a roof where violence is not accepted.

A view of a poetic artist residing inside of the school building housing the community of Tent City West

A view of a poetic artist residing inside of the school building housing the community of Tent City West

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How Long Will Tent City Last?

With the two week anniversary, there are questions being asked about the longevity of the community. Originally there was an agreement between the residents and the city to obtain permanent housing for each resident. Unfortunately the agreement has not been fulfilled by the city and the expected deadline of two weeks has now passed.

For the community, there are questions about its own longevity. Some have questioned whether the city will allow the community to remain open for any length of time. Others are worried that the city will convert the building back to a code blue community fairly soon, possibly leaving the residents back on the streets if permanent housing is not found for them. Currently the residents are hopeful that the city will follow through and in the meantime, they can keep the community running as a safe space for its residents.

Volunteers and Donations

Volunteers and visitors can expect a reserved but welcoming community. Many residents are undeniably shy at first due to the current situation and their histories. Many have been on the streets for some time, dealing with a lack of food, violence, and the elements. Once someone gets to know the residents, many tend to open up to share their stories or accept help. With the help of volunteers and people donating items, the community has seemingly begun to coalesce into a family of sorts.


During a Labor Day BBQ, all the residents were treated to a large cook out with food being donated by outsiders. Volunteers like Duane Davis (aka Shorty) cooked countless hamburgers, hot dogs, and pork. Children played chess while others danced to music being broadcast over a speaker. Residents seemed genuinely happy and enjoyed themselves. Even the Mayor of Baltimore, Mayor Pugh, arrived and talked to residents. The BBQ lasted for hours.

Aside from the Labor Day picnic, residents can spend time cleaning, organizing, and resting. A number of chairs are located at the entrance area for residents to sit outside on. Other rooms inside also have tables, chairs, and cots to spend time playing games, reading, or sleeping. It’s generally a quiet location.

Becoming a Model for Other Cities

Perhaps ultimately “Tent City West” is a temporary location that gives its residents some breathing room to find more permanent housing, obtain healing, find services, and maybe obtain training for employment. Currently it has no official end date or timeline but its long term service may be in doubt. Perhaps the residents can breathe a sigh of relief since the city still seems to be working on finding permanent housing. Regardless, residents are asking for continued donations which are essential for the community to operate. Everything from food items to appliances are much needed. While the community does not have a tax deductible status for donations, every donation is very much welcomed.

Looking forward, the community is really an experiment. This is the first time in Baltimore city’s history that a homeless population has been running their own community or space with minimal oversight. In the beginning, more than a few onlookers predicted the community would close within a week. They were wrong. Now going forward, the residents can show what is possible and become a model for other cities.

A view of the entrance to the school building housing the community of Tent City West

A view of the entrance to the school building housing the community of Tent City West

For Those That Wish to Donate: A List of Needed Items

Items Needed

Food: perishable

Food: non-perishable

Plastic eating utensils

Paper plates


General cooking utensils (Spatulas, large spoons, etc)

Drinks (flavored water, sodas, fruit juices, Gatorade-type drinks)

Water (drinking bottles)

Water (large bottles or jugs)

Body wash (small units for each person)

Hand sanitizer units

Large tabletop ovens (toaster ovens, microwaves, etc)

Large coffee makers (industrial size, if possible)


Coffee creamer


Rubber or plastic gloves for cooking

Walkie talkies



Shoes (all sizes)

Professional dress clothes

Casual clothes

Fall or winter jackets and coats

Sweaters and sweatshirts


TVs (LCD/LED HDTVs, if possible)

DVD players


Notebooks, pens, paper


Hot prepared food for dinners or lunch

© 2017 Bruce Emmerling

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